Palestinian Christians to challenge Israel-centric evangelical beliefs in May conference

BETHLEHEM — If Jesus were to suddenly appear at one of the Israeli checkpoints that separates this Palestinian area from Israel, what would He think? That is a question that bedeviled the Reverend Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who is the academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College.

“Would Christ discriminate between people based on their ethnicity?” Isaac asked. “Would Christ promote fear of the other?”

These questions were among those that inspired Isaac, 39, to set up a conference called Christ at the Checkpoint, an event hosted by Bethlehem Bible College and held every two years. The aim of the conference is to teach evangelicals from around the world about the lives of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation. Hundreds have gathered at each of the four conferences that took place between 2010 and 2017. The fifth one is happening next month between May 28th and June 1st, and the organizers are expecting around 450 in attendance.

Isaac, who is the conference director, said that while Christ is the symbol of the Christian faith, the checkpoint is a symbol of the reality for Palestinians. Together, they form the conference title. Checkpoints are barriers set up in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces to prevent terror attacks that harm civilians. But Palestinians who pass through checkpoints – which is often necessary for daily commute to work – must get their identities checked by Israeli authorities and are subject to lengthy questioning.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Jesus Christ at the Center.” The theme is a challenge to Christian theologies that place Israel at the center. “We believe as evangelical Christians in Palestine that Scripture points us to Christ, not to Israel,” Isaac explained.

Indeed, a big target group for Christ at the Checkpoint is evangelical Christians in the U.S. Sami Awad, a speaker at this year’s conference and the director of a Palestinian peacemaking nonprofit called Holy Land Trust, said that Christian Zionism – support for Jews to return to the Holy Land based on the promises made to Israel in the Bible – is a strong movement in the States. “Most evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have support for Israel no matter what happens,” said Awad, who travels to the U.S. four or five times a year to meet with churches. “They say if politicians don’t support Israel, the country will be cursed.”

In a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, 79 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians, while five percent said they sympathize more with Palestinians. The report says that opinion is less one-sided in other denominations. Nevertheless, in groups like mainline Protestants and white Catholics, only 14 percent said they side more with Palestinians. Overall, most Christians overwhelmingly favor Israel.

“Many evangelical Christians will come and say, God gave this land to the Jewish people and it’s theirs,” Isaac said. “And we say, what does that mean on the ground? Should we pack, should we accept to live as second-class citizens all under occupation just because of that promise? 

“It’s these kind of questions that we want to challenge evangelicals to consider,” he said.

Besides challenging the beliefs of evangelicals, the conference will highlight the Palestinian perspective – one that is often not heard in Christian circles.

“I once met a woman who for 50 years prayed for the peace of Jerusalem – every day, that’s what she told me. And she said she has never mentioned Palestinians. She didn’t know we exist,” Isaac described. “We’re living in an age when you would think, with social media, people would know. But still they don’t know.”

Within the Holy Land, Palestinians who are Christian are even more invisible. According to The World Factbook published by the Central Intelligence Agency, Christians make up between 1 to 2.5 percent of the population in the West Bank, and less than one percent of the population in Gaza. The Christian population in the two regions used to be 15 percent in 1950, and it continues to dwindle.

“Palestinian Christian voices get almost zero presence within mainstream media because they do not fit neatly into either a Conservative or a Liberal American political narrative,” said James-Michael Smith, the founder of a Christian nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina. Smith, 39, traveled to Bethlehem for Christ at the Checkpoint four years ago and will participate in this year’s conference.

David Azar, 29, is a Palestinian Christian who moved from Gaza to the West Bank. He studied theology at Bethlehem Bible College and went to the conference in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Azar told me about participants he met at past conferences. “Some people, they didn’t know that there are Christians in Palestine,” he said. “They were thinking that Palestine is an Islamic country. But through Christ at the Checkpoint and a conference like that, they will see the living stories of Palestinian Christians.”

Mariam Geraisy, a recent graduate of Bethlehem Bible College, has similar thoughts. “The world does not care about the feeling of Palestinian Christians,” said Geraisy, 23. “For me, this conference is a good way to make our voice as Christians for the whole world.”

She attended the conference in 2016 as a theology student. Geraisy grew up in Beit Sahour, a town east of Bethlehem, and said that living in the West Bank presented many challenges.

“This is represented by the political and religious situation in Palestine,” Geraisy explained. “Some examples of this are the wars between the two peoples, the existing violence, the physical humiliation and the psychological humiliation of anyone trying to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem or any other area.”

A Palestinian Christian woman from Bethlehem, who asked to remain anonymous, shared about the difficulties of visiting Jerusalem – largely because she must first cross a checkpoint.

Palestinians who travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem have to apply for a permit. But the woman said the hardest part is the fear that hits her while she’s crossing the checkpoint. “If I’m in the line, if I see a soldier, I’m scared and I walk like a robot, not like a normal person,” she explained. “You can’t put your hands in pockets.”

Having encounters with Israeli soldiers is one of the many realities of life in the West Bank.

For Christians who have seen glimpses of the reality and want to stand with Palestinians, there remains to be challenges.

“We’re living in a time when it’s still difficult and costly to many evangelical Christians to publicly support Palestinians or to publicly say something sympathetic to Palestinians,” Isaac explained. “It’s almost like a taboo to support Palestinians.”

Nevertheless, Isaac said he hopes that evangelicals from the West will attend the conference and hear from their Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem.

“We’ve met, sometimes, pastors who say they’ve come to the Holy Land many times with groups but never came to this side here,” Isaac said of Christians who make their first visit to the Palestinian territories for Christ at the Checkpoint.

“The biggest effect is, they leave saying, ‘We didn’t know.’”

Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Delarosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

The Holy Land: Where churches abound and even the water is sacred

TABGHA — On this very shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Christians believe that Jesus fed 5,000 people with nothing but five loaves of bread and two fish. The miracle is marked by a church that draws a steady flow of pilgrims who silently crowd the small space, some of them kneeling by the walls and whispering private confessions into a monk’s shoulder. While the modern church on the site was completed in 1982, some of the floor tiles date to the Byzantine period.

The place’s serenity does not match its frenzied history. About 130 years ago, a German Catholic group called the German Occupation of the Holy Land purchased 250 acres along the Galilee’s shoreline – including what is now Tabgha. The pilgrims did not even know what they had acquired: The original Byzantine church had been destroyed by the end of the seventh century, and the land as they found it was obscured by overgrowth. Only archaeological excavations in 1932 clarified the site as that of two major Biblical episodes, but its proximity to the hostile Israeli-Syrian border prevented the church’s construction until 1967 (when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria).

Since then, said Father Matthias Karl – one of Tabgha’s five Benedictine monks from Germany – life for Christians within Israel has been generally agreeable. The situation in the West Bank, he noted, is “totally different.” There, Karl said, Israel reneges on the democratic principles it tries to uphold within the pre-1967 borders.

But Tabgha has also known the severity of marginalization: In June 2015, Jewish extremists carried out an arson attack against the church that caused seven million shekels in damage. But the aftermath of this atrocity followed the model of generosity that Karl and Tabgha have long tried to set. The room in which we met, he said, was funded entirely by synagogues from around the world who refused to let the arsonists represent Judaism.

Generosity is built into Tabgha’s mission, said Karl, because Jesus performed one of his most generous deeds on these very grounds. For 40 years, the church has been inviting disabled and traumatized Israelis and Palestinians to visit the church together; it now hosts a full-fledged retreat for up to 80 of those children during the summer.

Indeed, Karl seemed at all points more concerned with his faith’s practical impact than with its symbolic implications. Asked about his robes, he joked that the hood saves him from needing to remember a hat.

Before we departed, Karl interacted with us on personal level. One Catholic member of our group, Liz Donovan, brought along a dozen wooden rosary beads that she bought the day before during our visit to Nazareth. She asked the priest to bless them. He held them in one hand while making the sign of the cross over them with the other hand. “Lord, bless these rosaries and the people who use them,” he said and then offered blessing for our group as we continue our studies and journey.

We then drove south through the hilly desert landscape of the West Bank to a baptismal site on the Jordan River known as Qasr al-Yahud. It was here Christians believe that Jesus himself was immersed in the waters by John the Baptist. We arrived around midday, under a hot son and walked to the river along with pilgrims robed in white, their bathing suits visible beneath the robes.

The water in the river was shallow and murky, the color of clay. A sign read “Border Ahead” in multiple languages, and just a few feet across the river was another country: Jordan. Amid the tourists, on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the river, were armed border guards.

Pilgrims were dunking all the way under the brown water and then crossing themselves. Other pilgrims stayed on the sidelines, maybe just dipping their hands or feet into the water. Even though we weren’t there to get baptized, several of our group cooled our feet in the waters, careful not to slide on the slippery bottom.

Our visit was brief, as we had to travel to Bethlehem to explore the Church of Nativity. We breezed quickly through a checkpoint as we passed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The local Palestinian bus behind us was not so lucky and was immediately pulled over. We drove through a gate in the security barrier built by the Israelis more than a decade ago to isolate the West Bank.

We arrived in Bethlehem and walked through the cobblestone streets. There were many small square buildings stacked on hills. We went up a small staircase in between buildings and found our guide Salwa. Salwa explained the Church of Nativity is the oldest church in Israel/Palestine and second-oldest in the world only to a church in Armenia. To get inside, we went through a “humility door,” a door so small you have to seriously duck to get through.

Inside, there were cool slabs of stone on the floor and the smell of incense was fairly powerful. It was exceedingly ornamented, with many silver chandeliers and candle holders hanging from the ceiling. The walls were covered with elaborate mosaics and colorful idols hung everywhere.

The birthplace of Christ was actually in a cave, Salwa told us, and not in a manger with wood and straw as it is often depicted in the West. She also noted that Christ’s manger was probably made of limestone, a common commodity in Bethlehem at the time. We slowly made it down semi-circular stone stairs with the rest of the pilgrims. In a small cave in the wall was the birthplace, marked by a silver 14-point star. Many people touched the birthplace and some placed rosary beads in the center and crossed themselves. It seemed to be a remarkable and exciting moment for a person of any kind of faith.

Afterwards, we went to the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-profit, to meet the executive director, Sami Awad. The organization works with the Palestinian community at both grassroots and leadership levels to promote non-violent tactics to achieve the peace process. We took our shoes off and walked into a large open room with red pillows low to the ground surrounding the edge of the space. The walls were covered in signs that read “peace” in multiple languages. We discussed various aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict and Awad explained his personal ideological shift of Ghandi-ian ideology to King-ian, which meant a shift from advocating a change in borders to a focus on universal civil rights. He also explained the three main reasons he thought were fundamentally prohibiting the peace process: Israeli settlements, disagreements on the definition of “peace,” and restriction of movement. He stressed a sense of resignation common in Palestine and the psychological uncertainty Palestinians faced every day.

But more importantly, he said, is understanding others in the conflict: “Jesus said ‘Love thy enemy.’ We have to know who they are, because love means building oneness.”